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Future of work: 24 leaders reveal key trends that will define 2024 in the Middle East

Leaders share insights on how to create a company culture, avoid burnout, accommodate Gen Z, and if AI will replace human skills

Future of work: 24 leaders reveal key trends that will define 2024 in the Middle East
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

The year 2023 was one of transition. Various work models gained prominence, including flexible, remote, hybrid and a return to traditional office spaces.

An increased emphasis on employee well-being, mental health initiatives, and a greater focus on work-life balance characterized qualities of valuable work culture in 2023. 

It was the year of Quiet Quitting, the Great Resignation, and the Invisible Revolution, all signifying profound shifts in the labor force. Strife and discontentment made way for a more resilient and adaptive workforce.

As we enter 2024, the workplace continues to evolve, driven by technological advancements, societal changes, and lessons from the preceding year. Integrating advanced technologies such as AI will give way to enhanced productivity. The “liquid workforce” concept will gain momentum, emphasizing the need for a highly adaptable and skill-flexible workforce. 

As organizations navigate the landscape, these trends reflect a commitment to creating resilient work environments that respond to employees’ evolving needs and expectations in the years to come.

We talked to 24 leaders about how leaders can create the company culture they want, ways to avoid burnout, how to accommodate Gen Z, if AI will replace human skills, and more in 2024. 

Here’s what they had to say: 

Abdallah Abu-Sheikh, CEO, Botim

“One trend reshaping our approach to work involves the rapid integration of technology into our daily tasks. Over the next decade, technology is poised to revolutionize how we interact and work, emphasizing seamless integration, user-centric approaches, and AI enhancements.

In the rapidly evolving landscape of AI and the fourth industrial revolution, generative AI is a transformative force challenging traditional work paradigms. Robots are automating routine tasks, reshaping labor markets globally, with low-skill jobs facing potential disruption. However, this same technology that disrupts also offers opportunities for innovation, increased productivity, and more efficient services, both in the public and private sectors. To stay ahead of AI, we must harness its automation potential in traditional sectors, leading to enhanced efficiency, reduced operational costs, and increased productivity.”

Ahmad Ali Alwan, Deputy CEO of Hub71

“The future of work will require proficiency in advanced technologies with AI and digital assets at their core, in addition to having transferable skills such as communication and collaboration. These facets will be crucial to advancing competitiveness, driving innovation, and maximizing impact across sectors.”

Alexander Epure, Co-Founder and CEO, Qureos

“A trend reshaping the work landscape is the accelerated adoption of hybrid work models fuelled by technological advancements and the ongoing effects of the global pandemic. The hybrid work model, which comprises a blend of in-office and remote working, is not merely a temporary solution but is evolving into a permanent fixture within the modern workplace. This trend is particularly pronounced in the Middle East, where organizations are recalibrating their strategies to accommodate their workforce’s diverse needs and preferences. In the context of the Middle East, the hybrid model is not only enhancing work-life balance but also aligning with the region’s economic diversification plans, such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and the UAE’s Centennial 2071, which emphasize technological adoption, fostering innovation, and enhancing the non-oil economy.

Navigating the AI wave requires a strategic blend of adopting technology and nurturing a workforce that can seamlessly steer through this digital shift. It’s not merely about utilizing AI but also about developing an adept workforce in its application and ethical use. Essential skills like data literacy, algorithmic thinking, and understanding machine learning, coupled with cybersecurity awareness, are crucial.”

Geoffrey Alphonso, CEO, Alef Education

“AI is a transformative technology that creates a workplace paradigm shift, forcing professionals to adapt and acquire new skills to stay relevant in this technology-driven environment. Increasing advances in AI require concerted action to stay ahead. Embracing technology, promoting digital literacy, and fostering collaboration are critical steps in this direction. We must update education models and advocate for active learning policies to equip future generations with the necessary skills to cope in the Information Age.

We also need to invest in AI education and research, as well as interdisciplinary collaborations and the creation of a global governance framework to be better prepared. Proactively engaging governments in developing regulatory frameworks, promoting responsible AI development, and addressing the potential societal impact of AI advances will help the community keep pace with current trends and stay ahead of the curve.”

Hady Hajjar, Managing Director, HuManagement

“Workplace trends continue to evolve as we move into more hybrid and vibrant work modes. Employees’ well-being is one of the most significant factors in terms of their mental health, wellness programs, and initiating a healthy work-life balance. Being able to multitask while keeping a high level of creativity and crisis management is an integral part of what we do, notably when managing celebrities, talents, clients, and big events. It comes at the forefront of keeping us in a leading position as an agency. 

Hiring for the desired company culture involves intentional practices and strategic decisions by leaders. Our values and culture are clearly stated and visible around our offices. We incorporate our culture into job descriptions, focusing on skills and experiences and the candidate’s cultural background, personality, and aspects to ensure they align with the desired culture. We are on a continuous feedback appraisal set for our current employees and get their insights on how we can evolve in the cultural aspect. If needed, we can make adjustments through surveys, meetings, and one-on-one discussions.”

Huda Kattan, Founder and CEO, Huda Beauty 

“I love how employee wellbeing has become so important in so many workplaces. From WFH and flexible hours to an increased focus on mindfulness. This adaptability from companies makes the work-life balance easier, so employees are happier and have more control over their lives than the old-fashioned rigid structures used to give. Some of the benefits my team is offered are ‘Self-Love Days’, which is where we take a Friday off every two weeks, giving people time back from all the hard work they’ve put in during the week. So, the whole company can take a break, breathe, and return after a 3-day weekend, refreshed and recharged.”

Jonathan Mepsted, VP – Middle East and Africa, Netskope

“We anticipate enhanced use of AI for rapid vulnerability exploitation and the automated extraction of valuable information. Adversaries may also leverage generative AI to craft effective phishing narratives and create realistic deepfake audio and video, elevating their social engineering capabilities.

We are well-equipped to fight fire with fire. AI’s ability to analyze vast amounts of data, identify patterns, and automate tasks can significantly enhance threat detection, incident response, and overall security posture. One key area where AI is making a significant impact is in threat identification. AI and machine learning-powered systems can continuously monitor network traffic, user behavior, and system logs to detect anomalies and potential threats that might otherwise go unnoticed by traditional signature-based or rule-based security solutions.”

Jerome Droesch, CEO – Domestic Health & Health Services, International Health, Cigna Healthcare

“One trend reshaping how we work is the increasing focus on employee well-being. Almost 88% of employees globally are experiencing burnout, with an even higher prevalence among young adults, where 96% of 18-24-year-olds report burnout, and 91% feel stressed, as per our survey. Additionally, 53.2% of UAE residents were happy to take a less-paid job if they had time to do other things. As organizations emphasize employees returning to the workplace, they will need to consider how they adapt to this evolving employee expectation to keep attracting talent.

As the labor market undergoes shifts, leaders must not merely adapt but deeply understand the evolving needs of their workforce. Recent data from our Middle East Wellbeing Report underscores the significance of rising costs, with 72% of respondents expressing that these financial pressures pose challenges to maintaining good health. Leaders must grasp the profound effects of neglecting employees’ mental and physical health, as evidenced by the alarming statistic that 88% of employees globally are experiencing burnout.  Employers need to prioritize mental and physical health as a core ESG imperative for the resilience and success of the workforce in an ever-changing world.”

Katharina Hicker, founder and CEO, Castleforbes Communications and Co-founder, Speakeasy Club

“AI stands as a transformative force, reshaping communications. Its influence has transformed my way of working. I’ve experienced enhancements in data analytics, enabling faster comprehension of audience sentiments and precise trend identification. AI’s real-time crisis management and reputation monitoring capabilities have proven invaluable, ensuring swift responses and mitigating damaging effects. Embracing AI is a strategy for leaders to increase productivity and foster creativity.

There is a need for adaptive leadership. Transparency demands leaders authentically engage diverse audiences while navigating public scrutiny. I advocate for bold experimentation and leveraging technology for more effective communication. As tech integration increases, however, the need for emotional intelligence becomes vital. Utilizing AI-driven tools and platforms can lead to a cut down in human interaction and requires leaders to cultivate skills like empathy, active listening, assertiveness, and self-awareness.”

Lucy d’Abo, CEO, Together 

“We are seeing that the global trend of recognizing culture as the ultimate competitive advantage is now reflecting as a norm in the Middle East, and we believe it’s here to stay. The steady growth of GCC economies and the rise of megaprojects in Saudi Arabia has increased the regional talent competition. Furthermore, our research in the UAE shows that 80% of people are ready to leave a company when they experience a bad culture.  Employers can no longer rely solely on competitive compensation packages and old-fashioned loyalty to attract and retain top staff.”

Mohammad Ballout, CEO, Kitopi

“A significant trend reshaping how we work is the adoption of flexible work. What we considered a temporary adjustment due to the pandemic accelerated the shift towards hybrid work. Alongside this shift, there is a new set of skills in demand. Navigating digital tools for remote collaboration has become as crucial as the work.  Video calls, project management apps, and virtual collaboration spaces are the new norm, pushing everyone to adapt and learn on the go. In this whirlwind of change – the way we work is becoming more flexible, tech-savvy, and, in a way, more human as we navigate this new era together.

We’re moving towards a workplace where smart machines seamlessly handle routine tasks, freeing up our time for more creative and meaningful interactions – think virtual assistants powered by AI, ready to assist with questions and problem-solving, making our work smoother. We’re eager to explore innovations that enhance customer interactions but approach them carefully.”

Patrick Chalhoub, Group President, Chalhoub Group

“Technology is developing extremely fast. There are many jobs today that will be taken over by AI. We have not seen such a good employment rate in places like the US, France, Europe, and Asia. AI may be replacing some jobs but also creating several new ones. People need to evolve and learn new skills. We have to use AI in the best possible way. We must continue developing our people to ensure we continue the learning and developing drive so people are repurposed for future skills. As a test, we’re automating one of our warehouse assembly units; this would impact the jobs of nearly 30-40 people in the assembly unit. Does that mean we fire the labor force? No, we provide them more challenging roles where they can use their creativity and passion. World leaders need to collaborate and control certain excesses related to AI.”

Rania Rostom, Head of Global Marketing & Communications, GE

“Today, we can bring together the brightest minds, no matter where they are located, to achieve exponential speed in real-time creativity, collaboration, and execution. This presents an unprecedented opportunity to solve tougher problems across all fields. And I would underscore the tremendous value in the diversity of perspectives and insights that this brings. Given the volatility and pace of change, alongside cascading black swan events, bringing minds together in infinite combinations enhances outcomes, builds an organization’s resilience and flexibility, and shortens the time from problem articulation to solution.

More than ever, digital dexterity will thrive on diversity. And for any organization looking to succeed in today’s world of nonstop change and multiplying challenges, diversity must be a core pillar.”

Soraya Beheshti, Managing Director, Crimson Education

“Gen Z expects companies to contribute to social causes, practice sustainability, and prioritize ethical business practices. These expectations can range from issuing statements on timely events to diverse and inclusive representation in media campaigns.

Following a career that one finds interesting and engaging is important, but we also endeavor to ensure that our students make sound decisions so that they will be content in the long term. Despite how unpopular it may be to admit, practicality and pragmatism are an important part of the equation. In addition to their passions, we want students to think about factors like the kind of lifestyle that they genuinely want to attain – and how important that is to them on the passion-practicality matrix. For some students, lifestyle is a minor factor. For others, it is.”

Stephen Severance, Director of Growth, Masdar City

“AI has to come top of this list. In terms of producing content, making translation easier, and in establishing how we can analyze large amounts of data, AI is a game changer for us. While AI is undoubtedly a game changer for all of us, leaders need to be mindful of not thinking that AI can do more than it can. Human intervention is still essential, as a lot of AI content still doesn’t appear authentic enough; it’s too buzzwordy, and audiences can ultimately tell it’s AI-generated. You still need a human connection to create true community and connections – whether that’s with businesses’ stakeholders, partners, consumers, customers, or employees. Even in a world where AI becomes more and more capable, the human connection will remain paramount to our success going forward.”

Talal Kensara, Chief Strategy Management Officer, Diriyah Company

“We increasingly observe our employees striving for purposeful work that significantly impacts the workplace. This trend underscores their desire to be part of something more meaningful. They seek alignment between their work and personal values and beliefs and are eager for opportunities that offer personal growth through their professional experiences. This trend requires rethinking our practices, emphasizing a people-centric approach that prioritizes employee well-being, engagement, and growth. It represents a significant shift in how organizations approach culture and values, with the need to integrate social responsibility and sustainability at every step. 

Addressing today’s toughest challenges requires leaders to adapt on multiple fronts. Another critical aspect of meeting these challenges is the leader’s ability to foster a collaborative and inclusive environment. This entails nurturing a workplace culture that leverages diverse perspectives and skills, where everyone is encouraged to participate actively regardless of their background or position. By embedding sustainability in every aspect of our decision-making, fostering a collaborative and inclusive work environment, and engaging directly with the local community, we demonstrate a leadership model that is both adaptive and impactful.”

Yahsir Qureshi, VP, Vice President & Head of Studio, Riyadh, Sandsoft 

Flexibility. Hybrid work trends will further evolve in 2024 for several reasons that have led to a major mindset shift in working methods. Firstly, post-pandemic, we have placed much more emphasis on our well-being and purpose. Secondly, a growing body of research proves that people are, on average, more productive when working from home than in the office. Thirdly, Gen Z is aging out of education, entering the workforce, and bringing a new outlook on work.

A study by the European Parliament in 2020 estimated that AI and machine learning will contribute to a 37% increase in labor productivity by 2025. I believe that, to be conservative. The impact will be even more profound as intelligent AI tools provide performance-related information to enhance, not replace, human impact at work. Leveraging principles from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and behavioral science, these AI-powered technologies will reshape the boundaries of human, team, and organizational performance, providing real-time coaching, nudging, and intelligent daily assistance to the point where even in the next few years, we will wonder how we managed to work without such tools.”

Leaders were interviewed by Myriam Mikhael, Suha Hasan and Rachel Dawson.

Responses have been lightly edited and pared down for length. 

*The article is being updated with responses

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